Centre Ice Conservatives are warming the bench for now
Moderate conservatives are worried, but what are they going to do about it?
Speaking to a gathering of self-described "Centre Ice Conservatives" in Edmonton on Thursday, former British Columbia premier Christy Clark offered a tidy explanation for why the people in the room had come together.
"When you look across the country, what we see are political leaders rushing to the fringes. Political leaders of all political stripes – they're all trying to get right to the edge," she said. "And you are trying to do the exact opposite. You are trying to preserve that middle political path that has saved Canada so many times and that has preserved our country."
The only question now is how Centre Ice Conservatives — or any other group of dissatisfied centre-right conservatives — might go about doing that.
Though a possible name change was teased at the end of the day's discussions, the group currently known as Centre Ice Conservatives was founded by Rick Peterson, a former investment banker who ran for Conservative leader in 2017 and finished 12th (he also briefly entered the Conservative leadership race in 2020, but dropped out after two months).
"We are a platform that intends to be a strong, bold and proud voice for the centre-right of Canada's political spectrum," Peterson explains on the group's website.
Thursday's event was billed as the first annual "Let's Grow Canada" conference and panellists included a mix of academics, journalists and politicians — former Conservative MP Leona Alleslev, former Conservative senator Marjory LeBreton and former Conservative candidate Ann Francis. The lone active politician to participate — and one of the day's most impassioned speakers – was Dominic Cardy, minister of education and early childhood development in New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government.
"There is a void at the heart of Canadian politics. If we don't fill it, we will lose our country," Cardy ominously declared in an essay that preceded the conference this week.
The day's discussion covered several broad topics and panellists expounded on ideas like the importance of economic growth, the value of fiscal discipline and the need to deal seriously with the global threats that loom beyond Canada's borders. In her keynote address, Clark lamented that both Liberals and Conservatives were being divisive and exclusionary in their rhetoric.
(Moments later, in response to a question from the audience, Clark said that calls for an Alberta Sovereignty Act were "batshit crazy." So apparently it's still OK to condemn some things in emphatic terms.)
"We have a chance to change the cycle of divisive politics in this country and this meeting today, I think, is the beginning of that," Clark said.
Is there a vacuum at the centre of Canadian politics?
Broad appeals for centrism often rest on flimsy premises and false equivalencies. Not all disputes are best solved by picking the midway point between the political left and political right. Equal compromise isn't always possible or preferable. The middle ground between two opposing views is not inherently more logical. Sometimes choices have to be made and sometimes making people unhappy is unavoidable.
But corrosive extremism and unnecessary divisiveness are worth calling out. And it's not wrong to wish that politics was more serious, more thoughtful or more rational — which seemed to be the undercurrent of much of Thursday's discussion.
It's also not hard to understand why moderate conservatives might feel a desire to speak out right now – and see a potential opportunity in doing so. Under Pierre Poilieve, the Conservative party would move further to the populist right. Under Justin Trudeau, the Liberal party is further to the political left than it was when Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were leading it (though the degree to which the party has moved to the left is sometimes wildly overstated).
But how would moderate conservatives actually fill the space that might now exist between the parties of Poilievre and Trudeau?
Near the end of Thursday's gathering, Peterson made a point of noting that his group is not affiliated with the federal Conservative party. "We're talking about bringing together ideas and people who could have an effect on any political party or any person who's running for political office," he said.
So perhaps the Centre Ice Conservatives could become a Progressive Conservative answer to the Canada Strong and Free Network, which was originally founded by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning. Maybe that would allow moderates to exert some small measure of influence over the agenda of a Poilievre government — or prepare for some future post-Poilievre leadership race.
Why not a new party?
At the outset of the one-day conference, Peterson was also adamant that he wasn't interested in starting a new political party. "Believe me, nobody here wants to do that. Who wants to set up 338 EDAs?" Peterson said, referring to electoral district associations. "That's worse than 338 root canals."
For sure, establishing a new national political party would be neither easy nor painless. But — to extend the hockey analogy — it's hard to score any goals if you're sitting on the bench.
Would a new conservative party risk splitting the vote on the political right, as happened when the Liberal party won majorities in 1993, 1997 and 2000? Maybe. But if there truly are moderate conservatives who are seriously concerned about the direction of the Conservative party, they may have to make some difficult decisions in the next while about what they're willing to do to respond to that.
A new centre-right party also might not just split the vote. It could hope to win enough seats to hold the balance of power in a minority parliament, a result that would give moderate conservatives a chance to exert real influence on a government's agenda — similar to what the NDP is doing now and has done in the past. In the long-term, a new centre-right party might also hope to have the sort of influence that the Reform party had on the reconstituted Conservative party that came back together in 2003. Or it could simply influence the future direction of the Conservative party, as the People's Party seems to be doing now.
Perhaps the Centre Ice Conservatives aren't the group to lead such an effort. But if they have put their finger on a real problem, it might take more than panel discussions and op-eds to deal with it.